Autumn 2018 fringe roundup

Last three plays from 2018 – apologies for the long delay. Once these are out of the way, I can revert to getting plays out on a more realistic timescale.

So after festival fringe season finish, I saw four other plays on a fringe scale up to the new year. One of these I’ve already mentioned, but let’s run through them.

The Turk

This first one was one of my bold choices from last season. Writer/performer Michael Sabbaton has done a string of solo plays in a distinctive style – I saw The Call of Cthulhu many years ago and his multimedia-heavy staging set the atmosphere very well. Director Sylvia Vickers, too, is a formidable name – she directs Wired Theatre’s plays at the Brighton Fringe, making them one of the leading site-specific companies on the south coast. This new play is another horror story of a similar style to Cthulhu, with delirious Johann Maelzel on a ship, shut below deck with an incredible chess-playing thinking machine “The Turk”, and it suits Sabbaton’s format very well. But, alas and alack, he did the one thing I was worried he’d do: the story and staging were so convoluted, I found it impossible to follow what was meant to be going on.

At 1 hour 45 minutes plus interval, The Turk runs an unusually long time for a solo play – and watching it convinced me there’s a reason why they’re usually shorter. Credit where it’s due, Sabbaton doesn’t go for the easy option of just telling the audience the story – instead, we hear the story through Johann’s fevered ramblings with the head of the mystical chess contraption that has come to be his only friend. From this, we hear how he acquired the machine from the inventor, and proceeded to tour Europe at the request of diganatories wanting to play the famous machine, until he over-indulges his lavish lifestyle leads to the death of his best friend. But there is so much rambling, the story development is painfully slow and tough to understand. Once we reach the half-hour mark, things start to get interesting, as we get music and the backstory starts to be acted out, and various bits on the set come into play. But sadly this came too late to revive my attention.

To give credit where this is due, The Turk has picked up good reviews elsewhere and got a tour on the back of the original Harrogate Theatre run, so something is going right. Either the play was worked on since I saw it, or other reviewers are seeing something I hadn’t. There is certainly a lot to this play that stands to impress, in particular the set of the lower deck of the ship and the machine in the crate that eventually comes to life. But I get the impression that the reviewers who liked this the most were the ones who were most familiar with the true story behind this. If that’s the case, it’s such a waste, because it’s a needless barrier to require background knowledge to follow the play. So I’m hoping that the tour has made the play more accessible as it’s developed. The Turk I saw would have been an engaging piece for a niche audience who know this obscure bit of history. But it could, and should, be a play for everyone.

The Important Man

Next, a play from Cap-a-Pie that I saw at Alphabetti Theatre. Cap-a-Pie is a group that has appeared intermittently in various collaborations, but lately they’ve been doing plays based on historical events. Unlike The Turk, this play, directed by rising star Laura Lindow, is a more conventional solo play of conventional length, and whilst it might now have been quite so adventurous, The Important Man is more than compensated in clarity. You might think that after four years of World War One centenaries, every angle has already been covered, but Brad McCormick has found a new one – the world of fortune-telling.

But shouldn’t society have moved on from superstitions by the 20th century? To understand that, you have to understand – as this play did so well – the desperation of the time. With so many sons, husbands and brothers on the Western Front, as news of mounting death tolls come through, it was little wonder that so many people turned to any source of reassurance – and if it meant turning to to a self-proclaimed psychic, so be it. Professor Calderon from Galicia is an expert in taking money from people in exchange for hearing what they want to hear. In fact, so lucrative is the business that there’s only one thing a ruthless charlatan like him has to fear, and that’s an even bigger even more ruthless charlatan coming along. Unfortunately for him, one does.

I did wonder whether we’d be in for the unreliable narrator play. Given Prof C from G’s economies with the truth when he’s telling fortunes, can we trust his story any more? That, however, is resolved quite cleverly at the end. In fact, I only have one small reservation with the play, and that’s the tangent at the beginning about some soldiers releasing a homing pigeons, which only seemed to serve a function of repeating this tangent at the end as a theatrical device. But that’s easy to forget and the story does the job well. One the one hand, this covers an aspect of the war few people know about – one the other hand, it covers an aspect that everyone knows about with a new human face. When you talk of millions of deaths in the trenches, you can get desensitised to it, but when you see the desperation of loved ones at home, it brings home the human cost of the conflict. Cap-a-Pie have a niche with these historical plays, and if this as good as the rest of their material, it bodes well.

A Picture of Dorian Gray

Box Tale Soup are in an unusual position on the touring circuit. This small ensemble are huge names at the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes, but they are yet to achieve the same status elsewhere. If I was a programming director I’d have snapped up their latest play the moment they announced doing it at the Edinburgh Fringe – instead, there’s a time-lag with tour slots only programmed after getting good Edinburgh reviews. So in spite of The Turn of the Screw getting rave reviews last August, their current tour is their hit from the year before, A Picture of Dorian Gray. But it should be worth the wait, because O had high expectations for Dorian Gray, and Box Tale Soup do not disappoint.

So, for those of you not in the know, the thing that distinguishes Box Tale Soup adaptations from all the other classic adaptations is their mixture of live acting and puppetry. Antonia Christophers plays the perpetually youth Dorian Grey, the two men play a number of the supporting characters, and the rest of the characters plays by puppets who start the play – fittingly enough – lined up in picture frames. For anyone who saw Northanger Abbey, all the strengths they played to there shine through here as well. In spite of the complicated arrangement of switching between actors and puppets, you never lose track of who’s who, and they keep their trademark touch of having words on a manuscript in their costumes. The atmosphere is different though, and so it should be, with the gentle setting of an Austen novel replaced with the escalating nightmare of an eternal youth whose painting takes the blame for all his crimes and debauchery.

There is one weakness this production has that Northanger Abbey doesn’t. In this version, as well as Dorian Gray, Antonia Christophers also plays the his portrait. Stylistically it is very fitting, but there’s only so far you can go representing a progressively disfigured portrait by pulling a face. As a result, if you don’t know Oscar Wilde’s story, you might not understand this important bit of the story. But even if you don’t follow that part – and this is testament to how well this was staged – the play is strong enough to stand up regardless, and the story of a well-natured man whose gift of eternal youth causes a good heart to turn rotten works with or without the connection to the painting.

A Picture of Dorian Gray shows that Box Tale Soup’s unique style of mixed puppetry and acting is versatile and works for more than one style of story, so when The Turn of the Screw tours next year – and surely it will – I will have every confidence in that too. It’s a bit of a shame that you have to wait so long to see these plays outside the fringes, but if that’s how it has to be, that wait is worth it in the end.

Jess and Joe Forever

I saw this for a different reason than usual – and I apologise for starting with something negative here, but it will be worth it. I first saw a play of hers, Nativities at Live Theatre in 2012, just before this blog started. The reviews of this office politics piece were okay, but I never really got into it, and the mood of other people I spoke to wasn’t much better. And yet four years later, the Orange Tree Theatre took on a new play of hers, Jess and Joe Forever, ran and ran and ran. With the Stephen Joseph Theatre picking this up, I thought it was time to see why. And yes – this play ran and ran and ran for a good reason. Before I carry on, I’m giving a rare spoiler warning for a review. I try to avoid spoilers in reviews, but in this case it is impossible to review the play without giving away the key plot twist. So if you are thinking of seeing this in the future, I advise you not to read this and just take the word of myself and others that it’s worth seeing. If you already know the spoiler, read on.

So Jess and Joe tell their story, which at first glance looks like a story of two children meeting who are different and yet have something in common. Jess has wealthy parents who spend most of their summers in Italy but also make her spend two weeks in the country because It’s Good For Her. In spite of this, she seems to spend far more time with a series of au-pairs than she does with her actual parents. Joe, in the meantime, is a quiet boy who just wants to get on with working at the farm. He also doesn’t share the interests of most of the friends he hangs out with, although when I said “friends” it’s more accurate to call them “tossers he knows”.

However, both of them have troubles ahead in their teenage years. Jess will be visiting Norfolk more often as her parents’ perfect lives fall apart and she turns to comfort eating. But Joe’s story is the one that will define the play. His Norfolk village is quite religious and conservative and the visiting vicar really does seem to have it in for Joe. The school doesn’t seem to know what to do with him either. The reason, it turns out is that Joe is trangender, and apart from Joe’s late mother, Jess is the only person who understand him for what he is. What follows in a tender human story of two people who care for and support each other when no-one else can.

If there was one bit I wasn’t convinced by, it was an early seen where Joe is being belittled by his “friends” for not going round drinking beer and shagging birds which all of his mates are definitely doing (and definitely not making hollow boasts about doing). Whilst I can easily believe farty thirteen-year-olds would behave this way normally, in a town where just about everyone knows and disapproves of Joe’s status, I find it difficult to believe these same farty thirteen-year-olds wouldn’t be belittling him for that instead. But that’s only incidental to the story, and the play’s message of just letting people be who they want is the strength of this play that makes it a deserved hit.

So, back to my opening, which I said I was doing for a reason. There is a debate over writers not getting second chances if a first chance doesn’t make enough of an impact. Anybody who writes plays can tell you that everybody writes at least one that didn’t work out – if you’re unlucky, that might be the one everyone gets to see. There is, of course, the counter-argument that every second chance given to a writer denies another writer a first chance. But Jess and Joe Forever is one of the best example of why it pays to do this. I guess the other moral of this story is to never write someone off just because you didn’t like one play. You never know what’s around the corner.

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